Tradition, Technique, Appropriation, and Exploration Part 1/2

I am nothing if not eclectic.  My sacred calendar follows the Eight Sabbats of Wicca, even though those dates have nothing to do with the actual seasons in which I live.  My ritual construction is firmly rooted in the pseudo-Gardnerian Outer Court Witchcraft of the sixties and seventies – Uncle Bucky’s Big Blue Book, Ed Fitch’s Book of Shadows – and certain modern plays on those themes.  I have studied the “core” shamanism of Michael Harner and Gail Wood (to name two), and learned tech at festival workshops and from friends whose linages are dubious at best.  I am now studying the Western Hermetic tradition, and though I will not adopt it in whole, I will certainly take what’s useful to me.  I’m increasingly fascinated by Chaos Magic (only ten years late to that trend, right?), but can’t quite swallow the entire open-source, paradigm-hat-trading irreverence to tradition it seems to require.  Dionysos and Rhea were present at my initiation, and I have spoken to Hephaistos and Apollon and to gods who still haven’t given me their names.

For fifteen years, now, I have searched for a tradition – one that will have me, or even one that I want to have me.  Initiatory covens are few and far between here in the Midwest, and I haven’t ever gotten invited to their Outer Court parties (though, looking back, I might have totally missed the subtext of an invitation once or twice).  I’m  a white USian, descended from the English on one side and the Germans (and Swedes) on the other.

But the gods who are mine by right of blood have never expressed any interest in me (being ogled by Freya’s handmaidens after invoking them at a wedding so totally doesn’t count) … nor I them, to be fair.  When I must defend my devotion to Hellenic gods – a rare event, but it happens – I cite the fact that my civilization is descended from theirs, even if my family is not.

In general, I give little credence to those to whom I might need to defend my eclectic neo-Wiccan practice.  I’ve never had access to sealed rites, so I can’t possibly have stolen them, and I think the effectiveness of my rituals says all that needs to be said about their validity.  Are some eclectics idiots?  Yes.  Do I struggle with the dissonance between Wiccan praxis and my queer feminist spirituality?  Frequently: the whole Goddess-God thing fucks with me a lot.  Do I have trouble fitting sacrifice to and propitiation of my patron and matron dieties into the Wiccan frame?  Absolutely.

The biggest problems start when we get into my shamanic work, which is where Gordon’s post on ethical syncretism comes in.  Simply put, there’s a lot of problems with my pasty white ass practicing anything that I could call “shamanism”.  There are the problems with the word itself: cribbed and Anglicized from a group of Siberian nomads.  There’s the whole scholarly debate on whether or not it’s even a thing, on whether or not the category works in the real world or if it’s just a way for anthropologists to lump together things that aren’t actually the same (which is a debate to lengthy and complicated for me to point you to any one or two sources).  And then there’s the part where most of the people who practice things we call shamanism don’t like us (that is, ignorant white people) stealing their rituals.

I strive to keep to what’s called “core shamanism” – the magical and psychosomatic techniques that transcend culture – but even that is iffy.  Even if shamanism is/was the universal root of all religious experience and expression, my culture left it behind so long ago that you can’t see anything but the roughest outline of its memory on the oldest rites we have.  I strive to re-contextualize it all, to provide the cultural and spiritual meaning in which all effective magic is rooted.  I disdain ayahuasca, datura, and peyote as entheogens in favor of flying “potions” such as absinthe and marijuana – drugs that, to the best of my knowledge, no subaltern group has staked out as their own, exclusive, spiritual tool.  I claim no titles, use no names.  The fact is that a certain rhythm of drum-beet can drive the human brain into places it is much, much harder to reach otherwise.

There are those who would argue that it is wrong of me to call upon the gods of Hellas using any rites but their own.  That my refusal to participate in reconstructionism – study it though I may, as a Classicist and an historian – ought bar me from calling upon the Olympians.  In my particular case, there are fewer who would argue that lack of blood-ties forbids me – Hellenistikos are less prone to that than, say, Asatruar – but it is still an issue.  Many of the most legitimate heirs are tied to the Greek Orthodox Church and disdain attempts to resurrect their old gods – you know I’m not going to listen to them.

Still, however carefully distanced I keep myself from the worst forms of cultural appropriation, I don’t know that I can actually divorce myself from the that legacy.  And yet … I cannot help but persist.  It is through this madly syncretic set of rituals and techniques that I have had my most profound spiritual experiences.  It was in a circle cast by Wiccan rite, using Harner’s shamanic techniques, that I entered the spirit realms in preparation for my initiation, and descended until I was greeted by Briareos*, Dionysos and Rhea.

The gods are the final arbiters of whether or not our rites are acceptable.  So why can’t I stop worrying so much about this?

*I don’t actually know that it was Briareos.  Possibly one of his brothers.  Regardless: he did me a favor once, and I needed to pay him before I could descend further.


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